Christians from a variety of traditions will celebrate Easter this Sunday. Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. For many Christians, including those from Eastern Orthodox traditions (who generally celebrate Easter later than Western Christians, as they use a different calendar), Easter is the most important Christian holiday of all.
But in North America and Europe, Easter has a diminished cultural force as a time for secular celebration — its wider cultural cachet hardly approaches that of Christmas. As Jesuit priest and writer James Martin wryly wrote for Slate, “Sending out hundreds of Easter cards this year? Attending way too many Easter parties? ... Getting tired of those endless Easter-themed specials on television? I didn’t think so.”
So why don’t we celebrate Easter the way we do Christmas? The answer tells us as much about the religious and social history of America as it does about either holiday. It reveals the way America’s holiday “traditions” as we conceive of them now are a much more recent and politically loaded invention than one might expect.
The Puritans weren’t fans of either holiday
Christmas and Easter were roughly equal in cultural importance for much of Christian history. But the Puritans who made up the preponderance of America’s early settlers objected to holidays altogether. Echoing an attitude shared by the English Puritans, who had come to short-lived political power in the 17th century under Oliver Cromwell, they decried Christmas and Easter alike as times of foolishness, drunkenness, and revelry.
Cotton Mather, among the most notable New England preachers, lamented how “the feast of Christ’s nativity is spent in reveling, dicing, carding, masking, and in all licentious liberty ... by mad mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude reveling!” As historian Stephen Nissenbaum wrote in The Battle for Christmas, “Christmas was a season of ‘misrule’ a time when ordinary behavioral restraints could be violated with impunity.”
Like other feasting days (such as the pre-Lent holiday we now call Mardi Gras), Christmas was a dangerous time in which social codes could be violated and social hierarchies upended. (Among the practices Puritans objected to was the popularity of the “Lord of Misrule,” a commoner allowed to preside as “king” over the festivities in noble houses for the day.)
The very nature of having a holiday, furthermore, was seen as problematic. Rather, the Puritans argued, singling out any day for a “holiday” implied that celebrants thought of other days as less holy.
Easter, too, was singled out as a dangerous time. A Scottish Presbyterian minister, Alexander Hislop, wrote a whole book about it: the 1853 pamphlet The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife. Using questionable and vague sources, Hislop argued that the name of Easter derived from the pagan worship of the Germanic goddess Eostre, and through her the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. (This claim has persisted into the present day, and is often cited by those who want us to make Easter more fun and secular. Still, the evidence for the existence of Eostre in any mythological system — a single paragraph in the work of an English monk writing centuries later — let alone actual religious links between Eostre and Easter is scant at best.)
Hislop decried Easter as a pagan invention, writing: “That Christians should ever think of introducing the Pagan abstinence of Lent was a sign of evil; it showed how low they had sunk, and it was also a cause of evil; it inevitably led to deeper degradation.” Even seemingly harmless rituals — food, eggs — were signs of demonic evil: “The hot cross buns of Good Friday, and the dyed eggs of Pasch or Easter Sunday, figured in the Chaldean rites just as they do now,” he wrote. Bad history it may have been, but it made good propaganda.
What did the English Puritans, their American counterparts, and this Scottish Presbyterian have in common? As the title of Hislop’s pamphlet makes clear, they were all influenced by anti-Catholicism: a suspicion of rituals, rites, and liturgy they decried as worryingly pagan. The celebration of religious holidays was associated, for many of these preachers, with two suspicious groups of people: the poor (i.e., anyone whose holiday celebrations might be deemed dangerously licentious or uncontrolled) and “papists.” (Of course, in England and America alike, those two groups of people often overlapped.)
Christmas got reinvented, but Easter didn’t
So what changed? In the 19th century, Christmas, the secularized, domestic “family” holiday as we know it today, was reinvented. In his book, Nissenbaum goes into detail about the cultural creation of Christmas as a bourgeois, “civilized,” “traditional” holiday in the English-speaking world. Christmas, Nissenbaum argues, came to be identified with the preservation (and celebration) of childhood. Childhood itself was, of course, a relatively new concept, one linked to the rise of a growing, prosperous middle class in an increasingly industrialized society, in which child labor was (at least for the bourgeois) no longer a necessity.
Popular writers helped create a new, tamer, model of Christmas: Washington Irving’s 1822 Bracebridge Hall stories, which referenced “ancient” Christmas traditions that were, in fact, Irving’s own invention; Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem “The Night Before Christmas”; and, of course, Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol. Nearly everything we think we know about Christmas, from the modern image of Santa Claus to the Christmas tree, derives from the 19th century, specifically, Protestant sources, who redeemed Christmas by rendering it an appropriate, bourgeois family holiday.
But no such redemption happened for Easter. While it, too, received a minor family-friendly makeover — Easter eggs, traditionally an act of charity for the poor, became a treat for children — it didn’t have the literary PR machine behind it that Christmas did.
Instead, its theological significance intact, Easter has maintained its status as a religious holiday and — the Easter Bunny and eggs aside — largely avoided any wider cultural proliferation. A study by historian Mark Connelly found that at the dawn of the 19th century, English books referred to the two more or less equally. By the 1860s, references to Easter were half that of Christmas, a trend that only continued. By 2000, Christmas was referenced almost four times as often as Easter. Today, Christmas is a federal holiday in the US, as is the nearest weekday after, should Christmas fall on a weekend. But “Easter Monday” gets no such treatment.
Christmas is a more natural fit for a secular holiday than Easter
The reason that Christmas, rather than Easter, became the “cultural Christian” holiday may well be prosaic. Religion News Service’s Tobin Grant suggests that the need for something frivolous to break up the monotony and cold weather rendered the Christmas season, rather than early spring, the ideal time for a period of celebration.
Or it may be theological. Christmas, with its celebration of the birth of a child, is a natural fit for a secularized celebration. Dogmatic Christians and casual semibelievers alike can agree that Jesus Christ, whether divine or not, was probably a person whose birth was worth celebrating. Plus, the subject matter makes it ideal for a child-centered holiday. The centrality of family in Christmas imagery — the Nativity scene, portraits of the madonna and child — allows it to “translate” easily into a holiday centered around children and childhood.
But the message of Easter, that of an adult man who was horribly killed, only to rise from the dead, is much harder to secularize. Celebrating Easter demands celebrating something so miraculous that it cannot be reduced, as Christmas can, to a heartwarming story about motherhood; its supernatural elements are on display front and center. It’s a story about death and resurrection.
But the same qualities that make Easter so difficult to secularize are also what make it so profound. As Matthew Gambino writes at CatholicPhilly.com,“That [paradox] is why I love Easter far more than Christmas. That moveable springtime feast celebrates not the beginning of the God-man’s life but the conquering of his suffering and ours. Easter marks the transcendence of death, the road leading beyond this life into eternity with the Father.”
Christmas as we know it today in the English-speaking world is, for better or worse, tied up in wider cultural ideas about family and a specifically Victorian, Protestant iteration of “middle-class values.” But the mystery of Easter remains strange, profound, and — for some — off-putting. But as the debate over the “meaning of Christmas” rages on, it’s nice to have one holiday, at least, where the meaning is clear.